Just in case anyone in the blues field is the slightest bit foggy about what Tommy McCoy has been up to in sunny Florida over the last few decades, Late in the Lonely Night should rectify that pronto.
The talented guitarist has made recordings in the past with high-profilers Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Commander Cody, Lucky Peterson, and Double Trouble’s rhythm section, but this set showcases Tommy and his working band (anchored by bassist Big Al Razz and drummer Pug Baker) doing what they do best: contemporary electric blues. McCoy’s confident vocals and concise, stinging guitar connect like a laser beam from first note to last. He’s a strong songwriter too; there are only two non-originals on this entire set (well-chosen ones at that).
McCoy and Earwig Records boss Michael Frank first crossed paths when both were aboard the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise in October 2010. Frank followed that up by stopping by one of McCoy’s gigs in Tommy’s St. Petersburg stomping grounds five months later. “I was impressed with Tommy’s performance, his guitar playing in a trio format, his way of engaging the audience, and with his well-thought out mix of his tunes and covers,” says Michael. The two crafted a deal for this self-produced album as well as McCoy’s back catalog.
Listening to this set makes it obvious what Michael heard in Tommy’s repertoire. There’s a strong sense of tradition within the Warren, Ohio native’s up-to-the-minute approach; his primary influences on guitar include B.B., Albert, and Freddie King and T-Bone Walker.
The steady-simmering title track opens the set in an atmospheric minor-key mode before McCoy lays down the law on the sleek and clever “My Guitar Won’t Play Nothin’ But The Blues.” “I’ve got a big old Gibson guitar; it has paid its share of dues,” declares Tommy, who writes from personal experience on the strutting shuffle “Cars, Bars & Guitars.” “I’ve still got a yard full of cars and a room full of guitars!” he laughs. The saucy “Never Shoulda Listened” is a swaggering vocal duet with Karyn Denham powered by Liz Pennock’s muscular barrelhouse piano, while the funky “Angel On My Shoulder, Devil On My Back” is driven by Baker’s marching drum groove and spiced by the pungent slide guitar of young Joel Tatangelo.
“I try to point out the dichotomy between positive and negative,” says McCoy of its storyline. “It’s got kind of an eerie feel to it.” Rick Hatfield’s harmonica winds through the tempo-shifting “Scattered And Smothered” (no feuding between Hatfield and McCoy here), while the R&B-tinged “Language Of Love” sports more tasty female vocal backing from Denham. There’s also room for a lighthearted “Dance Your Pants Off,” and “Spacemaster” features high-energy give-and-take between Tommy’s axe and Pug’s traps. “We do that, and the crowd just goes nuts,” says Tommy. The introspective “Life’s Tides” is a distinct departure from the rest of the disc. “That’s what I call one of my inspirational songs,” says Tommy of the latter. “It started off as a poem.”
The only remakes on the album stem from the same fertile source: the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose, fellow Floridians who scored early ‘70s R&B smashes with their “Too Late To Turn Back Now” and “Treat Her Like A Lady.” “Those two covers are ones I like to do,” he says. “I tried to make them Tommy McCoy versions, instead of trying to do it like them with the backup singers. I did it with guitar instead of vocals.”
To say Tommy got started on his musical journey at a young age is understating the case severely. “I’ve been playing blues since the early ‘60s,” says McCoy, whose parents bought him his first guitar for his eighth birthday in November of 1962. “I remember having Chuck Berry’s Greatest Hits album when I was in elementary school. Just listening to him play guitar is really what formulated my lead guitar. And I had Bo Diddley In The Spotlight.” There were other musical heroes too. “I just went crazy over the British Invasion, but not so much the Beatles,” he says. “I was more listening to the Animals and the Pretty Things and the Yardbirds.”
Older brother Gary had a band, and Tommy followed suit by forming and fronting the Rapscallions. “When I was still in sixth grade, I started playing junior high and high school dances,” says McCoy, who joined the musician’s union in eighth grade. His three-piece band, the Quick, opened for the Human Beinz and the James Gang, but blues remained his bedrock. “The Howlin’ Wolf London Sessions was my favorite album when I was in 11th grade,” he says.
Although his family relocated to Florida while he was in high school, Tommy never missed a beat, continuing to work steadily in a series of bands in both Florida and Ohio. He was playing bass in an outfit called MF Rattlesnake that also included Gary McCoy when the disco scourge impacted Ohio’s club scene like a nuclear warhead. “When my brother wanted the band to play disco and buy matching suits out of the Penney’s catalogue, I knew it was time to head back to Florida,” says Tommy. “I said, ‘I can’t do it, guys, I can’t do it. I’m going to go down to Florida, open up a used record store, and start a blues band and play Chicago blues!’”
True to his word, McCoy formed the Backdoor Blues Band in 1977 and made a name for himself around Orlando. He was fronting another blues band, the Screamin’ Bluejays (with Big Twist drummer Denny Best and Oblivion Express bassist Barry Dean), when he first encountered Stevie Ray Vaughan. “He was at Brassy’s, a club in Cocoa Beach. I’d heard his cassette. It had come into the used record store. We dug him because he was doing basically what we were, only a little louder and faster,” says Tommy. “We met and became fast friends.”
In 1985, McCoy moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and made his first album, Tropical Depression, with harpist Mark Hummel. Back in Orlando a year later, Tommy hired on as bandleader for soul singer Johnny Thunder, who’d hit big back in ‘63 with “Loop De Loop,” before joining Gregg Allman’s ex-band, the Telephone Kings, for a five-year stint. “We played everywhere around here, opened up for all the major national acts that came through,” says McCoy. Their polished 1993 album More Than You’ll Ever Know was loaded with McCoy originals.
Ready to tackle his first solo recording project, Tommy journeyed to Austin, Texas. A random stop at The Hit Shack recording studio led to him reestablishing contact with Stevie Ray’s rhythm section, Double Trouble (Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon). Their busy itinerary forced a brief delay in recording. “I hang around in Texas for a month, which is great because it gives me a month to really tweak up some great songs,” says Tommy. The half-dozen tracks he did with the pair formed the cornerstone of his ’95 CD Love N’ Money.
Tommy was back in the Sunshine State when he cut his next solo CD, Lay My Demons Down, at Bob Greenlee’s Kingsnake Studios with Hammond B-3 master Lucky Peterson on board. “He was the consummate professional on those sessions,” says McCoy. The Rock Bottom-produced disc was the first release on Tommy’s own Green Swamp label, his recording home until now. The international success of Lay My Demons Down led to his first overseas jaunts; he toured Norway with Rock Bottom and made a late ‘90s CD, Live in the U.K., with the British blues group Parker’s Alibi.
By sheer coincidence, McCoy met mutual friends of both Levon Helm and Garth Hudson within two weeks of one another. Since Tommy’s a great admirer of the Band, he sent word that he’d love to go into the studio with them. “Four months later, we were all recording at Levon’s barn studio in Woodstock, New York,” marvels Tommy, whose brothers Gary and Mark were involved in the resulting 2002 album, Angels Serenade. McCoy’s most recent album, Kickin’ the Blues, was an informal 2006 affair featuring piano pounder Commander Cody (the two were slated to do a show together). “I called Cody up, I said, ‘Hey, you want to do some recording? We’re going to be in the studio Friday night!’” says McCoy. “We did nine songs in one night.”
In addition to hunkering down inside recording studios and setting bandstands ablaze, Tommy’s the inventor of Microphome, a professional microphone cleaning foam that promises to eradicate the germs that infect defenseless mics. But he just wants to concentrate on Late in the Lonely Night at the moment, to be renowned as the quality blues singer, guitarist, and songwriter that he so obviously is.
Like the man himself, this album is the real McCoy.